INDIANAPOLIS – The tree caught fire that day, half a century gone now. It stood down inside Turn 4, just about where a ruffle of turbulence caught the front end of Dave MacDonald’s car and lifted it and turned him sideways, turned him into an unguided missile and then a mushroom cloud of black smoke and orange flame.
May 30, 1964, a little after 11 a.m.: And where were you, on the darkest day in the 98 years of the Indianapolis 500?
And why, 50 years along, will you hear faint echoes of it this morning, still see its imprint when they roll those 33 cars out in 11 rows of three, and the great race rolls away again?
At some point on this morning you could wander down to the Turn 4 grandstand and stand there and feel 50 years tumble away, but May 30, 1964, is only a ghost in a place of ghosts now. The tree is long gone, so long gone you can’t even see it in your mind’s eye. The boiling cloud of smoke and flame is long gone, too. There’s not a wisp of it left, nothing to remind you that on this spot a kid named Dave MacDonald and a kid-at-heart named Eddie Sachs died in the worst way a racer can die, breathing in flame in the middle of an inferno.
All of that, every bit of the horror, has vanished now. What has not is what is what it led to.
Those 33 cars, to start with, carry only 18.5 gallons of fuel per fuel cell, which is made of rubber and covered with a fitted Kevlar blanket. There is no fuel in front of the driver. If they hit the wall, they’ll for the most part not hit concrete, but a SAFER barrier designed to cushion impact. There are molded seats and impact lights and a carbon-fiber chassis with a honeycomb aluminum core.
Not all of that is because of May 30, 1964. But May 30, 1964, in some sense informs all of it.
That year you could run either alcohol or gasoline, and when you strapped yourself in, you essentially strapped yourself into a bathtub of fuel. Some cars were capable of carrying as much 100 gallons in both front-end and side tanks. And that year there was not just the comforting known quantity of the front-engine Offy roadster, but all manner of rear-engine configurations that were in the process of changing the sport’s entire landscape, but upon which no one yet firmly had handle.
And so a looming sense of disaster hung over everything that race morning. Along with many others, MacDonald, a rookie of great promise, plainly didn’t fully trust his ride, an exotic Mickey Thompson creation whose front end had the unnerving tendency to float when running in dirty air. Everyone caught his unease; when he and his wife, Sherry, hit their knees the night before the race, Sherry’s prayer was well, illuminating.
I prayed his car wouldn’t start, she said in Art Garner’s meticulous chronicle of that day, Black Noon: The Year They Stopped The Indy 500.
Of course, it did start. Of course, MacDonald got into it. And on the second lap he hit the wall and exploded into flames, and Sachs T-boned in the side fuel tank, and MacDonald’s tank and Sachs’ front tank exploded, killing both and stopping the race for an hour and 42 minutes.
And bringing changes, ultimately, that resonate to this day.
A day when the fastest field in history lines up to go. A day when there is a certain unease about that, too, about 13 drivers qualifying faster than 230 mph, about IndyCar’s plans to ramp up speeds even more.
And yet, not the unease there was in 1964, because ’64 changed everything.
The cars are definitely more user-friendly these days, Will Power said this month, half-a-century along. There’s not as many crashes during the month anymore. Just a bit more friendly.
One more echo.